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May 18, 2016

The opposition’s ‘brilliant’ strategy


May 18, 2016

Were it not have been about the serious issue of corruption, we would have doubled up with laughter – as the prime minister’s men and women must have, at least in this round. The only other winner in the critical National Assembly-based round of the Panama leaks crisis has been opposition leader Khursheed Shah. His win begs the question whether he was a solo winner, a PPP winner, a PPP-clique winner or a winner for the combined opposition.

The happenings at the National Assembly were almost surreal. The combined opposition had insisted, throughout the week, that the prime minister come to parliament to respond to their seven questions and also to be asked some hard questions by truth-seeking matadors and gladiators. Instead, the opposition came, they heard and they exited. Even Imran Khan left; he had been seen rather excitedly telling the audience at a London fund-raiser dinner that he was sorry to leave early but he had to so that he could personally ask the prime minister some hard questions.

But then came the moment and they all arrived in the assembly – the somewhat hesitant prime minister with his loyal protectors; the energised and rarely united opposition and the somewhat anxious speaker who was to anchor the potentially choppy session. The speaker had been assured by all opposition leaders, and especially by Khursheed Shah, that there would be no brick-bats and cat-calls. Yet the opposition’s repeated public resolve to grill the PM must have made him jittery.

The public expectation too was that, despite promises to remain civil, the opposition would force the prime minister to address questions around documented money trail, tax payments, source of capital for his family’s Saudi investment, transfer of money from Pakistan, Mariam Nawaz’s name in offshore companies, the PM not declaring his dependant-daughter’s assets, the contradictions around dates when Park Lane properties were purchased etc.

Adding to these questions was the opportunity that Imran Khan himself believed the discovery of his offshore company had provided him to further put pressure on the prime minister. The discovery was an embarrassment, especially since the PTI chairman had sharply censured all offshore companies as a means of stashing away ill-gotten funds. But he believed that by responding immediately, with documentation and in the PM’s presence, that his offshore company was neither illegal nor housed illegal gotten wealth or used for evading tax, he would succeed in exerting additional moral pressure on the prime minister to respond to the opposition’s seven questions in parliament.

It was unlikely that the prime minister would act according to the opposition’s script by responding to any of the opposition’s questions. But directly confronting the prime minister about holes in his earlier responses to the allegations surrounding the Panama leaks seemed to have been a key plank of the opposition’s strategy.

In fact even minutes before the start of the Monday session, marked as historic by the opposition, upbeat PTI leaders were telling reporters that their chairman was going to show the PM the way national leaders must respond when confronted with moral questions about themselves. The PPP’s Senator Aitzaz Ahsan, a key opposition strategist. had consistently and publicly advocated that the prime minister must be confronted with hard questions in the National Assembly. So if this was a key plank of the opposition’s strategy it all turned out rather differently.

The prime minister had his own way. He did respond to the opposition’s seven questions – as he thought best. Yes, his answers were neither supported by documentation nor did they clear existing contradictions. He introduced new elements including his UAE mills, claimed the Sharif industries had given billions in taxes to the government (but that was probably sales tax that we all the consumers pay), and ignored the questions about Mariam Nawaz’s offshore companies, the dates of purchase for the three Park Lane flats etc. But it went off well because the PM managed to deliver his speech as if it were a televised national address. He was not questioned by anyone about whatever he said.

The prime minister also rightly raised the question of the rags to riches stories of those flying in private planes and helicopters. He was pointing to PTI leader Jahangir Tareen, who has shared his tax details with the public and also his money trail – but the critical questions around the colossal loan write-offs that benefitted him have gone almost unanswered.

From the hallowed confines of the National Assembly came hollow-sounding words. As if from a high moral ground, the PM made the public resolve that matters would not stop here and that the government will be taking this issue of corruption and accountability right till the end. What this means in political language is not much. After all we still don’t have an accountability law which the PML-N and PPP were to finalise some years ago. This procrastination obviously suits both.

The prime minister also repeated the arguments made over the last few weeks by his loyalist spokespersons that the opposition keeps changing the goalposts – from the judicial commission headed by a serving judge to an FIA official to the parliamentary committee. The prime minister finally requested the speaker of the National Assembly to form a parliamentary committee from both Houses to finalise a consensus terms of references for a judicial commission.

The ‘historic’ session came to a close after PPP leader Khursheed Shah rose to meekly announce their departure since the prime minister had not responded to their questions. Imran Khan also walked away from the National Assembly. The opposition had agreed to walk out of the session if the PM did not answer their seven questions. And they did. Some brilliance that gave a walk-over to the prime minister. If there was a tagline to the historic session it would be: Opposition leader Khursheed Shah honours his word!

Meanwhile the opposition, having limped out of the ‘historic’ session, has stayed united and the pressure on the prime minister has not eased off. He has, however, managed to come out of the ‘historic’ NA session without any additional political pressure. Now the hard task for the government and the opposition, to arrive at consensus ToRs for the judicial commission, will begin.

With more than 500 names in the Panama leaks, the judicial commission will have a lengthy task to perform. That will automatically ease the pressure on the government. The opposition will unlikely be able to activate street power against the government on the Panama leaks. And any expectations from the army to play an active role in resolving the Panama leaks crisis are senseless. Such expectations flow from ignorance and desperation, of individuals within the ranks of the mufti – and some within the khaki too.

Pakistan has to brace itself for another hot summer, in which yet again attempts must be made to institutionalise a processes of genuine accountability. For too long have robber barons, across the political and institutional divide, used power and influence to enrich themselves while impoverishing Pakistan and its people.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @nasimzehra

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